Fractal Societies

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This page last updated on 01/26/2019.

Copyright 2001-2019 by Russ Meyer

The kids got in trouble tonight.  Normally, Annette and Nicholas sleep together in one room and Serena and Katie in another.  Katie wanted to sleep with A & N tonight, so we fixed up a little bed on the floor and Katie settled in.  The three of them immediately began to snicker and giggle.  The murmur of little giggles and squeals grew louder until 20 minutes later I had to open the door and tell them to quiet down.  They were quiet for about 5 minutes when the giggles and snickers started again.  This time it reached the level of a dull roar in about 10 minutes.  I again opened the door and sternly warned them to close their peepers and go to sleep.  It was already way past their bed time.  I especially warned Katie to quiet down as she was inciting the shenanigans.  I told them that if they didn't quiet down, Katie would have to go back to her own bed tonight.  Ten minutes later they were back at it again.  Jane walked in and told them to go to sleep.  Again, 10 minutes later, they were all abuzz.  This was getting ridiculous!  I went in and told Katie to gather up her stuff and march off to her own bed.  I told her that she should learn something from this incident.  That it had started out as a liberty that Jane and I had granted for her to sleep with A & N, but that she had abused that liberty, and now had forfeited the privilege.

That incident got me to thinking about societies, cultures, and civilizations.  Throughout history, many cultures exhibit a common pattern of ascendance and decline.  The big picture view frequently goes like this:  1) at first there is liberty, 2) then there is abuse of liberty, and 3) finally there is tyranny.  This is the pattern of the Greeks, Romans, Macedonians, Persians, Tsarist Russia, many African states, etc.  The revelation I had tonight was that the incident of the giggling children followed this same pattern.  I realized that this is a fractal pattern.  This same cycle can be discerned in a society of 5 individuals over the course of an hour (the giggling kids) and in the rise and fall of a civilization involving millions of people over hundreds of years.

Fractal means "fractional dimension."  Fractal patterns are everywhere in nature.  For example, section a piece of cauliflower.  Notice how each little mushroom shaped branch off the main cauliflower stem looks just like the whole cauliflower itself.  Like a bunch of little cauliflower buds...they're a splittin' image of their Daddy.  Them's fractals them lit'le buggers are!  Look at one of those little buds.  Notice that it has other even tinier buds branching off of it, and those teeny-weeny buds look just like the rest of the plant.  Their a family of clones.  This is a property of fractals called self-similarity.  The branching of the bronchi and bronchioles in your lungs follow a fractal pattern, as do the branches and twigs of a tree.  Some other examples of fractal patterns:  changes in stock prices, the geometry of coast lines, ocean waves in all sorts of ways, the turbulent flow of wind, classical music, the shape of lava flows, the leaves of a fern, the shape of a river basin, rock formations, the operation of your brain, even the sequence and timing of scene changes in a movie.  These fractal patterns occur both in space (cauliflower) and time (changes in stock prices).  Fractal patterns are a basic feature of the world we live in.  It is startling to realize how permeating this self-similarity pattern is in so many things.

Anyway, back to the fractal pattern at hand...
This pattern of liberty, abuse of liberty, then tyranny occurs on many different levels in a society:

  • Timescale of Hours - On very short time scales, like say an hour, the pattern emerges in situation such as the giggling kids.
  • Timescale of Years - On longer timescales of say 10 years there are situations like the E-mail spammers.  It is your liberty to write E-mail and send it to whomever you like.  Enter the spammers abuse this liberty by sending millions of E-mail to everyone.  The abusers irritate enough people and here comes the tyranny.  Efforts are now underway to clamp down on E-mail spammers.  State and federal governments are considering taxing the sending of E-mail, imposing criminal penalties, and allowing law suits to stop the spammers.  A bit of tyranny...not much, but not the freedom once enjoyed.  A few bad apples spoil the barrel.
  • Timescale of Centuries - A democratic country exhibits these three phases too.  Typically the society is very free at first.  This period seems to last as long as there are new frontiers to conquer and empire building to be done.  The society is outwardly focused.  Its citizens are helping one another build a great society, conquering obstacles and setting things in order.  There is an excitement like moving into a new house.  As the country bumps up against boundaries, geographic or otherwise, it turns its focus inward.  Its citizens become selfish.  With this selfishness, satisfying the whims of the individual become the goal.  Morality underscores duty to community, personal restraint and sacrifice for the communal good.  Morality becomes a casualty of this inwardly focused, selfish, self-gratifying citizenry.  With each succeeding generation, morality erodes, lowering the barriers for increased social excesses and abuse.  This is when a society transitions to the second phase; abuse of liberty.  This phase is characterized by a growth in laws and regulations.  Hand-in-hand is an increased litigious nature of the society.  Freedoms are gradually eroded as the society becomes more legalistic.  This growth in law is the seed of tyranny.  A selfish society enacts laws not necessarily for the greater good, but to control behavior deemed unattractive.  Witness the spectacle of political correctness.  Behaviors which were formerly lawful; smoking and the expression of certain opinions are now banned.  There are numerous subjects for which you may not publicly express certain opinions without fear of legal persecution.  Are we still the land of the free or the home of the brave?  Somewhere along the line, society transitions to a state of tyranny.  In a tyrannical society, agents of the law, not the public conscience, dictate what is legal.  Lawmakers ensure laws are enforced by closely monitoring the public for violations.  Order is kept in the society by imposing exaggerated penalties, thereby instilling fear in the populous.  For example, the development of the United States over the last 200 years.  At first it was truly the land of the free.  Liberty to do anything you wanted.  The United States is currently in the "abuse of liberty" stage.  There has been a significant non-linear growth in laws and regulations since the 1970's.  The society is becoming more litigious, selfish, and immoral.  The "baby-boomer" generation is exerting it's influence.
Time Scale Liberty

(behavior restrained by pubic conscience, individual sense of public duty, and morality)

Abuse of Liberty

(behavior restrained by selfish appetites)


(behavior restrained by the state through laws and fear of prosecution)


(giggling kids)

  • OK to sleep wherever you want
  • OK to talk quietly
  • OK to play with a few small toys
  • getting carried away with playing and talking
  • OK, everyone to their own beds in their own rooms.

(E-mail spammers)

  • send E-mail to whomever you want
  • send as many E-mails as you want
  • It's free
  • sending millions of E-mails to everyone and their dog
  • laws to regulate to whom you can send E-mail and how many you can send
  • E-mail transmission is taxed by the state

 (United States and ancient Rome)

  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of action
  • deliberately expressing views with an aim to incite (hate speech, vulgar works of art, etc.)
  • participating in actions without regard for public duty or the impact those actions have on others
  • significant growth in regulations controlling formerly lawful speech and actions
  • exaggerated penalties for infractions


Some Closing Thoughts on the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

  • To an extent, the growth of bureaucracy is good.  The bureaucracy provides controlled channels for dealing with daily issues of commerce and security.  However, there's a point where the bureaucracy becomes burdensome.  As it increases in size, it costs more to operate and taxes increase.  The preponderance of laws and regulations begin to significantly infringe on the liberty of people.  In short, over time it becomes more trouble than it's worth to operate the government apparatus.  It's just not worth being a citizen anymore.  This is when a society fails; the fall of Rome.
  • In the latter part of the "Abuse of Liberty" stage, a society is very chaotic.  A significant percentage of the populous is driven mostly by selfish, indulgent desires.  For example, in the latter days of Rome, huge amounts were spent on the public circus.  Chariot races, gladiators, the coliseum was even flooded to allow the staging of naval battles, all in the interest of sating the appetites of a vulgar, indulgent populous.  This is very different from the stolid, duty bound Roman of earlier times.  The earlier version of Roman is the one that built the empire, the latter version tore it down.

    This selfish public demeanor gives rise to a morality vacuum.  How is order maintained if everyone is just doing whatever feels good?  In this condition the society tends toward anarchy, and the operation of the state cannot be maintained.  The state steps in to provide order and direction to the populous.  This is tyranny coming to full bloom.  The immoral, decadent masses cannot be inspired to order.  They must be forced at the tip of a sword.  The state is now providing the societal cohesiveness which was formerly provided through the citizen's sense of civic duty, morality, and manifest destiny.
  • As the tyrannical phase sets in, government becomes the bastion of order.  A schism develops between citizenry and the government.  The populous becoming a force of self-serving, indulgent anarchy and the state exerting pressure to maintain order.  The citizenry essentially morph into a barbarian horde over succeeding generations, with the state besieged.  The state becomes focused on self-perpetuation; it protects itself, evolving into a police state.

Some interesting commentary on the theory of civilization: